The X Factor
Generation Xers do want news, but they want it on their own terms. If newspapers hope to woo them, they'll have to provide the content young readers are seeking, stop sneering at youth culture and deliver the goods in a hip and accessible way.
By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
"My day starts off like any other. I wake up at 9:00 and head for the kitchen after my shower to eat and read the paper. I pull out two sections...the sports page, and whichever section houses the comics.... I myself cannot sit through one front page story...but I still read the headlines."
IT'S A "TYPICAL FRIDAY" for this 22-year-old college senior, one of 29 students in a journalism class asked to keep a daylong diary of their media habits. Like many people, he'll spend more waking time with the media--10-1/2 hours, he reports--than any other activity. But this student is no news junkie.
Media provide, instead, an animated, stereophonic background mural for his day: He awakens to radio, keeps an eye on TV talk shows during his work shift, listens to music in his car, socializes with friends via e-mail.
He endures newspapers ("all my professors have stressed the importance..."), but sees himself headed in trendier directions.
"I'm sure it's only a matter of time," he writes, "before I start to turn to the Internet for information instead of reading the paper or listening to the radio."
Of the 29 students keeping diaries for my class, most tell similar stories. During their day, 21 will pick up a newspaper, 19 will go online, 14 will read magazines and 13 will catch some TV news. But most are skimmers rather than depth readers ("I glanced over the Washington Post that was sitting on the table while I ate..."), and more view ESPN's SportsCenter than the networks' evening news.
They are, it appears, representative constituents of Generation X, the 50 million-plus group aged 15 to 30 that often sees newspapers as relics and news itself as an obsolete artifact.
Alienated or at least isolated from the traditional media, they spend less time with newspapers than earlier generations, view less TV news and seem by many measures less interested in the civic affairs that are traditional media staples.
According to an American Society of Newspaper Editors study this spring, the so-called "Xers" are about a third less likely than Baby Boomers to read newspapers every day and more likely (by 26 to 18 percent) to agree that "reading is old-fashioned. There are quicker and easier ways to find out what you want to know."
"The ominous trend," wrote Robert L. Stevenson in a Newspaper Research Journal study two years ago, "is that every age group is reading less now than 10 years ago. Each new generation does increase readership as it ages, but reads less than the generation it replaces."
Yet Xers, or Generation Next members as some prefer, are the consuming future, and attracting their attention is becoming a fixation among media managers. As ASNE President Bill Ketter puts it, "Either we find ways to grab the twentysomething crowd or an entire generation will be lost as newspaper readers."
But how? Writer Laura Dalton expressed the problem this way recently in the Gannett Co.'s in-house magazine, Gannetteer: "The question: How best to attract these young adults who cut their teeth on 'Sesame Street' rather than 'Captain Kangaroo'; who used calculators, not slide rules, in school; whose fingers nimbly program VCRs; and who cruise cyberspace with supple ease?"
The answer, it turns out, isn't hard to formulate. It springs from a traditional principle of communications research. A medium succeeds to the degree consumers depend on it for essential services they can't find quicker and cheaper elsewhere.
"...the media is the first thing I have contact with when I wake up and the last thing I have contact with before I go to sleep."
TO CAPTURE GENERATION X READERS, newspapers must foster a renewed dependence, by offering a critical mass of material that young people need and want in a format more convenient than the competition.
This is simpler to describe than to do, of course, and at the moment the newspaper effort is wobbling. In fact, to some critics the gap between younger readers and traditional news institutions is so wide as to seem staggering. And they blame the newspeople.
Veteran journalist Jon Katz accuses newspapers of performing "social suicide" for belittling, patronizing and ridiculing the very audiences they need in order to survive.
"Papers have trashed almost every significant part of youth culture for decades," Katz wrote in Wired magazine, "from rock to radio to TV to rap and video games--portraying each as stupid, violence-inducing and dangerous. Hackers were mostly portrayed as weirdos while newspapers dozed through the arrival of another new medium that the nerds were piecing together in basements and bedrooms."
The result, Katz elaborated in an interview, is "an alienated generation" that "sees journalism as dishonest and clueless."
Katz, now a media critic for several magazines and online publications, knows media failure firsthand, having edited two newspapers that died, the Baltimore News American and the Dallas Times Herald, and served as executive producer of the unsuccessful "CBS Morning News."
A lesson he learned the ugly way: Journalists need to shed their contempt for youth culture.
"For the young, culture is religion, ideology and politics all mixed up into one," he says. It's serious, not frivolous, and he considers it high time newspeople covered it respectfully, junking the notion that "something is interesting only if it happens at a state house." As Katz suggests, a generational gulf sometimes seems to separate the old and young into entirely different worlds, where they speak conflicting languages and have irreconcilable news interests.
Last year, the Boston Globe conducted informal focus groups with young people on the way to creating a regular column called "Whatever." Jan Shepherd, a senior assistant Living-Arts editor, was struck by twentysomethings' "lack of familiarity with things we take for granted."
"We asked them about columnists like Dave Barry, and they didn't even know who we were talking about," Shepherd says.
Similarly, the ASNE evidence, the media diaries of my 29 students and interviews with experts and readers alike suggest several ways Generation X behavior may upend journalism orthodoxy:
The distinction between "information" and "entertainment," treasured by traditional journalists, is increasingly treated as artificial and irrelevant by younger readers.
Brand loyalty toward newspapers as a comprehensive news source is waning. Generation Xers are utilitarian, seeking the quickest path to the information they desire. Without the bias toward newspapers that older readers carry, their natural instinct is toward browsing multiple sources.
The moral claim newspapers once had on readers, the civic imperative to become an informed citizen through reading, has diminished. Today's consumers don't see "reading the newspaper" as a socially desirable end in itself. They feel less connected to traditional institutions, including both government and media, and less well-served by conventional definitions of news.
Are they a lost generation of readers? Not yet.
Young consumers don't reject newspapers so much as dismiss them. They don't dislike papers so much as disregard them. Their sense of dependence is slipping.
But it hasn't vanished.
During an average week, according to the ASNE study, nearly two-thirds will read, or at least scan, both a weekday and Sunday paper. They hunt out the sports, career, fitness and entertainment coverage. To build up this base, newspaper people need to look carefully at how the Generation X constituency now uses and thinks about the media.
A Surfer's World
Generation Xers inhabit a world where the mall model has shoved aside the department store model. Just as they pop from shop to shop instead of lingering in one place, they skim from medium to medium instead of fixing on one source.
"Although I still do use some old-fashioned methods of communication (reading a magazine, for example)," one student wrote in her media diary, "I am sure that one day I will turn to the computer to read magazines online.... I can access them faster, and it saves paper. Plus it is more interesting because there are links and other related sites that I can have access to."
Another reported, "I used the online media because of its capacity for quick linkage.... I e-mailed a friend in Pennsylvania, looked up the address of a business on the Web and read about the new Cranberries' CD.... Where else can I find a sense of social connectedness, information from around the world and entertainment in one place?"
This suggests that many Generation Xers are likely to speed to a few select items in a newspaper rather than linger over the whole package, and to appreciate links, whether electronic or verbal, to other interesting material.
Making It Easy
Repeatedly, students stressed convenience and ease of use in the face of time pressures.
"I was once a news junkie," one student wrote, but already "time limitations have reduced me to a mere 'user' of general interest, public affairs news. When I have the time required for relaxed and thorough reading, I devote it to specialty publications that particularly interest me."
"My media consumption was determined by how convenient the particular medium was," another student wrote. "As my commute lengthens and I work more, I will continue to make my decisions using this criteria."
The Right Connections
A strong theme among my students was the craving for human connection--and the underlying sense that newspapers are aloof, one-way institutions that provide a minimum of it.
"The beauty of media, especially the online media, is that it provides a link between the users and others," one student explained.
"I readily admit that soap operas, 'Beverly Hills' and 'Melrose Place' have no socially redeeming value, but they are very entertaining," commented one of their many fans. "A larger reason for watching those shows, however, is the social contact. As silly as it sounds, it forms a bond between the people who watch it."
But at times print powerfully makes its own connection. One student was drawn to coverage of a plane crash, particularly a story about a relative taking care of children who were having trouble accepting the loss of their mother.
"This article was interesting to me," she wrote, "because my father died when I was young. When I read articles like this, I usually feel really sad because I know what the next few years will be like for the kids, and it makes me sad for their loss and for mine."
"The last thing I did before going to bed...was to check the British Press Association Web site to see the front page headlines in the tabloids.... It's a nice way to end the day, tying together my favorite forms of journalism, new and old, and meeting the combination of information and education head-on."
"COMBINATION" SEEMS AN APT word. To connect with younger readers will probably require combining many strategies, from what papers cover to how they cover it.###
For all his criticism, Jon Katz believes newspapers are "the perfect medium for the millennium": portable, friendly, familiar, able to provide context and variety, "the perfect antidote to the overload people feel."